Church and State in the Modern World, Part II

If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could then better judge what to do, and how to do it.
—Abraham Lincoln, June 16, 1858 (in his “House Divided” speech)

See then that ye walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil.
—Ephesians 5:15-16

As we have already seen, the intersection of Church and state in our postmodern culture is deeply problematic. In this post, we’ll look more directly at some of the most troubling current issues facing the Church, and ponder what comes next. We will consider two main questions: 1) Who can gainsay Caesar?—Gay marriage (in Denmark) and adoption (in the UK) are now enforced by the state, together with the similar case of the HHS mandate (in the US);  2)Does the separation of Church and state protect or endanger the Church?—We will examine the case of IRS tax code and “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” as well as the concept more generally.

1. Gay Marriage, Gay Adoption, and the HHS Mandate



In June 2012 Danish parliament upheld the unrestricted rights of homosexuals to marry in the church of their choice.[1] While individual priests are permitted to decline to perform such nuptials, their bishops have no such choice, and must find a replacement who will perform the marriage. Anyone not totally beguiled by the false a priori synthetic judgment “choice = a positive moral good” that so muddles postmodern ethics can clearly see: this is wrong. I have not yet read what legal recourse Denmark will take if they find a bishop with integrity.

A similar situation has already reached a showdown. Legislation passed in the United Kingdom in January 2009 prohibited adoption agencies from refusing services to gay couples. Since then, all twelve of the Roman Catholic adoption agencies in Great Britain were forced to close.[2] This is a profoundly disturbing case. Catholic adoption services accounted for approximately 80% of adoptions in the UK. Study after study has shown that homosexuals comprise roughly 4–5% of nearly any demographic. Of that cross section of the population, the number of homosexuals who are in a relationship and seeking to adopt a child clearly drops to well below 1% of the population. Yet for this miniscule group, the vast majority of adoptions in the UK have been forcibly stopped. (When this consideration leads to the likelihood—and number—of increased abortions in the UK, the Christian conscience burns.) We will turn to one more sobering case, far closer to home.Image

On January 20, 2012 the Health and Human Services secretary announced a new mandate: all health plans must provide FDA approved contraception at no cost. While religious bodies themselves are exempt, their nonprofit institutions are not. As in Britain, this imperils the integrity of the extensive Catholic charitable work in our country. The Blunt Amendment sought to give religious employers freedom of conscience, but it was voted down 51–48 in the Senate.

All three cases reveal a striking—and chilling—new interpretation of the separation of Church and state. Our thoughts are our own, but our actions are strictly regulated. What happens in Church, stays in Church. Out in the “real world” we are increasingly legally required to play by society’s rules. But do we even have freedom within the walls of our churches? Already we saw this threatened with Danish legislation, but a little known bit of tax law makes matters more complicated in the US as well.

2. Separation of Church and State and Free Speech

A law written in the days of Lyndon B. Johnson surprisingly curtails the freedom of speech given to faith leaders. If a priest endorses a specific political candidate from the pulpit, he forfeits his tax exempt status. Since the time of Constantine, priests and bishops have enjoyed at least some measure of tax exemption, and traditionally the separation of Church and state has been conceived as a means of protecting churches. Yet this law seeks to protect the state from Church leaders’ influence over their flocks. It could be argued that it protects the possibly vulnerable faithful from demagoguery. Yet the modern world has set limit upon limit as to what the Church may dictate. The Anglican Lambeth Conference of 1930 banished the Church’s teaching from the bedroom, and within decades nearly the entire Christian world accepted this novel stance. Likewise our tax code erects a “wall of separation”—Jefferson’s phrase, tantalizingly reminiscent of Ephesians 2—between the homily and the ballot box. In the final analysis, a Church that cannot tell you what to do is no Church at all.

American pastors have been challenging this law. Since 2008 a group called the Alliance Defending Freedom have been staging “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” in which all members preach an overtly political sermon, endorsing a specific candidate. They are attempting to provoke the IRS to action, leading to a court case. In this way they hope to overturn the law as unconstitutional. Fr Josiah Trenham has joined forces with this movement, and given the debate an Orthodox voice.[3]

In light of all these recent events, we must ask a simple question:


If our culture continues to move in the direction it has chosen, the actions of the Church in the secular sphere—at least in an official, institutional, and legally recognized way—will likely cease. If “hate speech” and “marriage rights” continue to be expanded, priests and bishops face a choice: lose all freedom of conscience in preaching and even in the exercise of sacerdotal ministry, or accept that the Church must lose status as a legally recognized and tax exempt nonprofit religious entity. But will this be enough? Can we remain “under the radar”?

I will end by being deliberately provocative—provocative, but not fear-mongering (too many signs of a clear and present danger exist to justify that epithet). Why should we expect to recuse ourselves from an entire society without repercussions? Already the Obama administration’s counter-terrorist memoranda list “single-issue” groups—and gives as its first example “anti-abortion”—as pressing domestic terror threats.[4]

We must not be naïve, for our age has a unique character. If we face the possibility of persecution and martyrdom, it will not be like the ancient martyrs. In the pre-modern era, a tyrant had exhausted his options with the death penalty (as Plutarch relates of Draco: he thought death fitting for minor crimes, and for the more serious ones, he had no greater punishment). Not so the modern world. Belying our stale platitudes praising “coexistence” and “tolerance,” there exists a more radical push for conformity of thought than has ever existed in the history of the world. We no longer kill dissidents. We “cure” them. Recall O’Brien’s explanation of the “Ministry of Love” to Winston in 1984:

No! Not merely to extract your confession, not to punish you. Shall I tell you why we have brought you here? To cure you! To make you sane! …We are not interested in those stupid crimes that you have committed. The Party is not interested in the overt act: the thought is all we care about. We do not merely destroy our enemies, we change them.

This is not only a matter of fiction. Our Church has witnessed the horrors of Communist Romania’s Pitesti, the grueling and painstaking work of brainwashing dissidents. All Orthodox should know of the experiences of the modern confessors Fr George Calciu and Fr Roman Braga.

It is fitting to end with these two men. They simultaneously represent two dramatic facts. First, we must not be complacent, for our age has produced rapid and unprecedentedly brutal persecutions for those who serve Christ. But secondly, and far more importantly, these two man stand as beacons of grace, compassion, and the triumph of love over the most shocking and corrosive forms of hate. This present time is capable of profound evil, but thanks be to God, the Gospel still shines forth. Precisely such evil itself has helped to manifest new exemplars of sanctity. The God who trampled down death by death works all things for the good of those who love him.

[3] In this podcast, Fr Josiah Trenham interviews megachurch pastor Jim Garlow, and speaks about Pulpit Freedom Sunday, as well as the more general theme of how conservative Christianity can engage our culture and our political milieu.

[4] This is a pdf of the document (see page 10 for the reference to “single issue groups” such as “anti-abortion”). This is altogether unsettling when joined with Obama’s penchant for claiming the right to assassinate citizens without trial. See: (documents pertaining to the purportedly lawful assassination of US citizens would, ideally, be far more specific—this document, however, is riddled with doublespeak and “elastic clauses”).

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